Development at the crossroads
Whilst I am too young to remember Dr Beeching, you can see the results of his swinging axe wherever you go across the country in closed lines, old stations and disused railway lands. Many people still curse his cuts – and of course, there are occasions where a reopened railway in the right place can be really successful, as shown by the reopening of the Borders Railway line from Edinburgh to Tweedbank.
However, we need to be aware that in many cases, the opportunity for the revival of an old Victorian transport vision has gone, and we have to use the asset that remains in a different way.
As a family man, I love the fact that old railways have reopened as cycle routes across the country, and my children love going out on these routes, which are flat and scenic and connect parts of the country you often don’t get chance to see, except by foot. These cycle routes have also often brought additional tourism revenue into the otherwise flat economies of sleepy rural areas.
All over the country, we see new bypasses and road links constructed on the line of former railways, and you can almost get the sense of being on a train as you follow the path of the standard British Rail bend, which would have been initially laid as you drive one of these roads.
The next asset that needs to be used is the land around our stations. It seems we have maximised this around London, where property prices are much higher, but as we move more into the regions, we have to look at the asset of the old railway lands to build new development in a more innovative way.
The figures quoted for the uplift in value for property built adjacent to stations in London that will benefit from Crossrail are staggering, but probably believable. The desire to live close to a station is increasing as people see the opportunity to be able to walk to the station and get the train to work, to visit friends and to make leisure trips.
At Taunton Station, the £6 daily parking charge is a major disincentive to using the railway – even if people see the time saved in getting the train, rather than sitting in traffic. Given the increasing spread of friendship networks that people now have across the country from university, rather than the traditional local network, this opportunity is increasingly important - and walking to the station and getting the train represents the best possible option.
The announcement this week that the Homes and Communities Agency will step in with funding to lead development at a number of stations, including Taunton, is welcome news. It will provide a much-needed capital boost to kick-start a project which Taunton Deane Council has been pursuing for many years, but which has yet to fully get off the ground due to insufficient investment.
Developing the lands around Taunton Station will be another piece in the jigsaw puzzle that was the Masterplan for the station drawn up in 2012, and part of the Taunton Vision study first produced in 2002 and updated in 2014. This truly is an opportunity to make use of an asset which has lain dormant for many years, and connects the station in a sustainable way to the rest of the town centre.
The development of any form around stations has proven to be very successful, and you only need to look at how quickly the Crest Homes Firepool Lock scheme has gone up and sold in Taunton to see what well-planned well-located development does. These houses aren’t the traditional Englishman’s castle in the green and pleasant lands of the Southwest.
Rather, they are typical town centre dwellings which serve the need of the new urban professional and aspiring homeowner. This further initiative will continue to provide the intravenous drip that the town centre housing market needs. Delivering starter homes in this location will give a town like Taunton the opportunity to attract young professionals, with affordable housing located in the heart of a busy town that is also connected to the rest of the country by an excellent and growing rail network.
Well done to Taunton Deane and the HCA for promoting such a scheme and throwing down the gauntlet to other towns of what could be done elsewhere across the country. As I travel by train from Taunton to London this misty morning, I can certainly see that there are plenty of other opportunities available!